INDIANAPOLIS – Ted Marchibroda will be glued to his television set in Virginia on Sunday, hoping a former pupil will get a ticket punched to New Orleans.
Marchibroda was the Colts head coach in the 1996 AFC Championship game when Indianapolis fell in the final seconds at Pittsburgh, 20-16.
His quarterback was Jim Harbaugh, known that year as “Captain Comeback,” and the season ended at the title game’s final gun when a desperation pass from the Pittsburgh 29-yard line fell incomplete after a wild scramble among Steelers defenders and receiver Aaron Bailey.
The pair later was reunited in Baltimore in the same capacities, and Marchibroda was pulling for Harbaugh last year when San Francisco lost a heart-wrenching 20-17 home overtime decision to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game.
Marchibroda was turned back once at the Super Bowl’s doorstep, and he hopes Harbaugh is successful in his third crack in a conference title game.
“I keep hoping for him. I recall the last two times he was in that game, he could easily have won,” said Marchibroda. “The bad call in Pittsburgh when Kordell Stewart scored after stepping out of bounds before his reception in the first half. It should not have happened. Last year, there was the fumble on the punt. Those caused Jim not to get to the Super Bowl, and they were things he had nothing to do with. Both games went against him.”
Pittsburgh scored a controversial touchdown in the 1996 title contest when Stewart stepped beyond the end-line prior to catching a second-quarter touchdown pass. There was no instant replay mechanism in place at the time to correct the officials. Last year, Harbaugh’s 49ers fell following a turnover in the extra session.
Getting a team back to the same moment in consecutive seasons is a task for any head coach. Marchibroda was a motivator through confidence-building, and he sees Harbaugh’s love for the game coming through as he prepares San Francisco.
“I really can (see Jim in his team),” said Marchibroda. “The thing I notice is his team always is ready to play. That’s the way he was a player. I don’t think there was anyone who loved the entire program of playing more than Jim. He loved the meetings, the coaches, the support staff, he loved practice.
“It seems his players are the same way. They play so hard in every game. That’s the determining factor I see in him and his team.”
The 1995 season was a special one for Harbaugh, who now is in the Colts’ Ring of Honor. Coming off the bench early in the season in replacing starter Craig Erickson, Harbaugh directed a 27-24 overtime win at the Jets when the club faced a 24-3 third-quarter deficit.
Starting three weeks later after seizing the job, Harbaugh again wiped out a 24-3 third-quarter road deficit at unbeaten Miami as the Colts won in overtime, 27-24.
He piloted the club to a memorable 18-17 win over defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco and to four victories in the last six games to reach the playoffs. There, Harbaugh helped the club earn road upsets at San Diego and Kansas City before falling just short of a berth in Super Bowl XXX.
Marchibroda believes Harbaugh learned a lot about himself during that special season. He grew as a player and team leader, something Marchibroda says is evident in Harbaugh’s first NFL head coaching role.
“I think the 1995 team (rubbed off on him). We had to fight to win, and we were the underdogs a lot of times. That’s Jim, though, a fighter. He’s never going to give up,” said Marchibroda. “I think he had to learn something from that 1995 team. That was the first time I noticed how close that team was. The players were so involved in games. The players were dedicated to play the best they could play. They had a fondness in each other and an approach for the game that helped them achieve. Jim was the leader, and I can see those things in his team now.
“He’s going to have his team ready to play. They’re going to play 60 minutes. I am thinking the third time’s the charm for Jim. I think he’s going to make it. It looks like he has the ballclub to make it. Twice he was so close, he deserves it. I hope things go Jim’s way for a change.”